Archive for August, 2009

Snow Leopard Exchange Bug Confirmed

Monday, August 31st, 2009

After the official launch Friday, several people within my company are now reporting the same bug I experienced with Exchange support in Snow Leopard.  Email folders and calendar events just disappear from the server.  This looks very nasty.

MacOS 10.6 “Snow Leopard” Review

Friday, August 28th, 2009

I’m a member of the Apple Developer Connection, which gives me access to Apple’s “developer preview” releases of MacOS.  The latest release, launched today, is version 10.6 (dubbed “Snow Leopard“).  I’ve been running the last developer preview (build 10A432) for two weeks now.  Though developer previews are subject to Apple’s NDA, the non-disclosure terms do not apply to publicly-available programs and information.  Fortunately, a friend of mine found that his fresh install of the retail disk that arrived from Apple today is also build 10A432 (that is, the publicly available disk is identical to my installation).  Because my experiences reflect those of use with (what is now) a publicly-available product, I can share those experiences now.

Though this is not a comprehensive review, these are my perspectives as an end user.  Overall, I like the responsiveness, disk-space efficiency, and (as a geek) the promise of improved capabilities through the rearchitected (“refined”) kernel.  I had severe data-loss issues with Exchange support such that I would strongly advise caution before using it in a critical setting, and I had a couple of kernel panics that are troubling.

Installation went smoothly and took about an hour.  I ran the installer from within my pre-existing 10.5.8 installation on my Core 2 Duo Late 2006 iMac, which has 4GB of RAM.  I disliked the fact that the installation of Rosetta (Apple’s mechanism for emulating PowerPC execution so that you can run older applications written for PowerPC on Intel hardware) is disabled by default.  I thought they could do something more intelligent like look in your /Applications folder and check for PowerPC applications.  It’s a minor issue, however — I had read that this was a known change, so I enabled the optional install.  More serious to me was that the installation deleted Xcode.  I suppose this, too, was an optional installation, but this seems rather stupid.  It’s Apple’s software that ships as part of a fundamental part of the operating system.  If you’re upgrading the rest of the OS and are saving settings and so on, why on earth was Xcode passed over?  I reinstalled it after I discovered it was gone, but finding my basic tools (gcc et al.) gone was disturbing.  The installation initially did seem to reclaim about 6GB of disk space, but after reinstalling Xcode, the difference was negligible.  Allegedly the major source of reclamation is removing unused printer drivers and installing them on-demand instead, but since I had already removed them, it makes sense that I missed out on the big disk-space savings.  I also installed 10.6 on my late-2006 Macbook Pro, which roams more often and therefore I’ve left the printer drivers on it.  The disk savings was closer to the claimed 6GB on that machine.  Regardless, both worked fine with my networked Brother laser printer after the upgrade.  The installer no longer gives installation-type choices (“upgrade in place”, “archive and install”, “erase and install”) — it just does an upgrade.  Apparently you *can* “erase and install” manually, if you erase your disk before booting the DVD, but that’s not the method I chose.

After installation, the first thing I did was configure Mail to use my work email account, which is hosted on an Exchange 2007 server.  This is probably the big user-noticeable feature that’s added in 10.6, which is otherwise mostly a rearchitecting of the kernel with very few user-visible changes.  I was very excited about Exchange support.  For those that don’t know, Exchange integrates calendaring, a user database, and email.  All information is stored on the server and fetched by the client, so that you can have multiple clients connected to one server, yet they all have a synchronized “view” of your account’s email, calendar, and contacts.  It’s a Microsoft standard, and frankly it’s annoying to use because there are so few non-Microsoft clients.  I had been using (the Rosetta-requiring) Entourage 2004 client, which is functional but has a terrible interface and is slow.  Setting up my account was trivial.  Mail quickly started fetching my mail, and before long my calendar was synchronized with iCal as well.  Exchange contacts were accessible as expected in Mail, and things seemed to “just work” — until they didn’t.

About 3 days after using Mail, disaster struck.  Somehow, one of the clients (either my iMac or Macbook Pro) was out of sync and deleted several folders worth of email from the server.  I lost about 3000 emails, possibly permanently.  (I’m in the process of finding out from our IT group how difficult it might be to restore them, since I know that our email is archived as per Sarbanes-Oxley compliance).  Most of these were not critical emails, but this was extremely troubling.  I immediately disabled my Exchange account on my 10.6 clients.  Apple’s bug-reporting tool has been broken for weeks, so I’ve no idea if they’re making progress on this issue.  Worse, a backup could not save me — it’s a synchronization bug that wipes out your emails on the server.  I haven’t seen anyone else report this issue.  Obviously I looked in the trash (on all my clients) and saw nothing — this clearly seems to be some sort of bug in the synchronization mechanism Apple is using.  I have perhaps 15,000 emails on my account, and I do wonder if their testing has overlooked cases like this.  I also have about 20 filtering rules (for mailing lists), which may have complicated the issue, and I always have several clients connected to the server simultaneously (usually my Outlook 2007 client at work, my iPod Touch, and then my laptop & iMac at home).  Regardless, I’ve been doing this with Outlook and Entourage for a long time now and have never encountered this, so I’m definitely chalking this up to some sort of bug that Mail either has or triggered in the other clients.  The take-away point is that users should be extremely cautious of using Mail for their Exchange accounts until Apple releases an update that mentions something about improved Exchange support.  I certainly won’t be using that feature until then.

Other than Exchange support (which is unusable for me now), changes are subtle.  There’s a new look to context menus for items in the Dock, which was the only interface issue I noticed as different.  Window decorations and the Finder look identical to 10.5.  Bootcamp adds support for reading HFS+ volumes from Windows, which is nice.  The other major differences are all under the hood.  I did not do any benchmarking, but threading and context switching seem much, much faster.  (I hate reviews that say useless crap about how something “feels snappier” — how is that quantified, exactly?  It always seems to be in the reviewer’s head).  Specific things that I noticed as improved was the responsiveness of Expose and the Dashboard.  The Finder has been rewritten in Cocoa, which may also explain its speed improvements.  And surprisingly, Firefox 3.5.2 is much more responsive on 10.6 than 10.5.  Opening new tabs is far quicker than before, and I get far fewer “spinning beachball” pauses when I’ve got lots of tabs open on Safari or Firefox.  These perhaps are the effects of scheduler and memory allocation improvements in MacOS — things that have, traditionally, been kind of crappy in performance, and which seem to be addressed in the marketing material for 10.6 (things like the “Grand Central” multicore dispatch mechanism, which seems to reveal heavy work on the scheduler).  10.6 also has support for a 64-bit kernel and extensions, but my hardware does not have a 64-bit implementation of EFI and therefore is not compatible with Apple’s 64-bit kernel.  (It’s possible to run a 64-bit kernel on 32-bit EFI, but Apple isn’t supporting it, which is fine.  Even on machines where a 64-bit kernel is supported, it likely does not make sense to enable it by default until drivers and 3rd-party extensions have a formal, rigorous qualification process).  Likewise, my graphics hardware does not support Apple’s hardware-accelerated h.264 playback, so I can’t comment on that, either.  Unlike the 64-bit kernel, I do hope that Apple aggressively rolls out expanded hardware support for this acceleration to other models.  It may well be that Apple will support these features on all new Macs, which would be great.  Now, they are of limited (or nonexistent) value for upgraders.

Unfortunately, the architectural and performance improvements aren’t all ideal, either.  When using Safari on a guest account that I was testing, I managed to trigger a kernel panic (!) twice when using the “Top Sites” feature, which I normally disable on my own account.  Unfortunately, this feature is enabled by default.  Thinking it was a fluke, I tried again, and boom, panic() again.  Apparently Apple has not taken the advice from my blog (that is, “don’t panic()”).  🙂  Again, I haven’t seen other reports of this issue, but I have not had stability problems on this hardware for the 2.5 years I’ve had it, including some 3D graphics use.  The panic log showed that the failure occurred in com.apple.ATIRadeonX1000, therefore this may be a graphics-driver issue.  I say “may” because any other driver in the system could’ve DMA’d memory into the driver earlier that caused the eventual fault.  It’s tough to say.   So, it would seem that a few corner-case bugs still require addressing.  In the meantime, I’m disabling “Top Sites” everywhere and will be on the lookout for an update.  I’m also going to beware of 3D graphics, actually.

So to summarize, these are the Pros and Cons from my experience — on newer hardware, I’d think that the “Pros” would also include hardware acceleration for h.264, but perhaps an update will come with that.

Pros:

  • Improved application responsiveness
  • Disk space reclaimed
  • HFS read support from Windows (via Bootcamp driver)

Cons:

  • Potentially catastrophic Exchange support
  • Mysterious kernel panics that seem graphics-related (using Safari’s Top Sites feature)
  • Features that seem tightly restricted to a small-ish subset of installed hardware (h.264 hardware acceleration, OpenCL support)

On the whole, it seems a fairly solid point-zero release (10.5.0 had its share of troubles).  The only potentially glaring problem is if the Exchange issue is encountered by many more people, given that it is the primary end-user feature of this release.  I’m hopeful for an update on this issue and perhaps hardware acceleration for h.264 as well.

Visit to the Kennedy Library

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I visited the John F. Kennedy Library yesterday.  I’ve got a friend in from out of town, which is always a great motivator for doing some of the touristy things in your own city that you never do in day-to-day life.  The library is smaller than I’d imagined, but very impressive.  We took about 3 hours go to through it.  I love history and especially historical artifacts, so seeing the notes with Kennedy’s handwriting and some of the recordings I’d not heard before was great.  Two of my favorite tidbits, which my astute friend pointed out, were in the “Moon Shot” portion of the museum.

One was on a draft of his famous speech he delivered at Rice University in Houston during which he set the goal for the United States to go to the moon by 1970.  The draft includes, typed,

Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?

Kennedy added a handwritten note above,

Why does Rice play Texas?

As a Rice (graduate) alum and vigorous UT football detractor, I’ve always found this line apropos and humorous.  It was neat to find out that Kennedy added it himself, and to see the note that added it.

The other interesting tidbit was that, despite all of Kennedy’s rhetorical flourishes calling for American scientific exploration, he flatly and openly told NASA administrators that he didn’t care about space.  He cared about beating the Russians.  He pointed out that it was fairly useless to spend $7 Billion to arrive at the moon 6 months after the Soviets, and if that was to be the outcome, he’d scale back NASA.  There’s tape of the NASA administrator (James Webb) pleading with exasperation that the US should explore space for the reasons Kennedy himself said in speeches (leadership in space sciences), and Kennedy basically says “that’s nice, but I’m in this to win against the Russians”.  Fascinating stuff.

Spyware on Digsby

Monday, August 17th, 2009

I recently discovered that my former IM client, Digsby, was leasing out my computer for computational work without my explicit consent.  Since I don’t like the idea of possibly donating my computer (least of all, my work computer) to God-knows-who for God-knows-what project, I ditched it.  (This is usually against the IT policy of every major company I’ve ever seen — even benign things like folding@home are forbidden, because they suck up the company’s electricity, and companies want their resources used to make money).  I went back to Pidgin in the interim, which has a craptastic interface but is functional in a Soviet-automobile sort of way.  It works with AIM, Yahoo, and Jabber, and supports my company proxy — which is the bare minimum of functionality for me.  However, I discovered that Trillian has released a new IM client, Astra, which I’m now using and love so far.  As I use Astra more, I’ll follow up on it.

The Digby folks were rather non-specific in their description of what it does, offering feel-good descriptions like cancer research.  And yes, it’s true that this was disclosed in a blog post quite a while ago.  The problem is that I shouldn’t have to read some developer blog post to know that your software isn’t nefariously using my resources once I install your program.  It’s true that any time you install any software on your computer, some level of trust is required.  And yes, Digsby is free — but they also pitch themselves as some sort of fast-moving community of software developers, so it was never clear that they were leveraging their users for anything more than testing and community-building.  Seeing as how they kind of present themselves as the Facebook/Myspace of IM and seeing as how those other services are free (without nefarious strings attached), they have an obligation to prominently disclose behavior which very clearly deviates from a standard agreement between users and software publishers.  Burying this information with nonspecific descriptions in a click-through EULA which nobody reads (and whose legal basis has not been evaluated in court) does not count.  At very least, it’s unethical.

I’m sure some people are fine with what Digsby did, and they don’t mind running the so-called “research module”.  The problem is that none of Digsby’s explanations of the research module make any sense.  They first explain what grid computing is, then they give some examples of grid computing.  The clear intention is to leave the reader with the belief that what your computer will be doing is “things like” cancer research.  Hell, they call their distributed-computing client a “research module”.  Their intent to deceive is clear.  From their description:

There are numerous research projects that require a massive amount of computing power to complete.  One option is to run these on a supercomputer but there are very few of these in the world and renting time on them is very expensive.  Another option is to break the problem up into many little pieces so each of the little pieces can run in parallel on thousands or even hundreds of thousands of regular computers.  This is called Grid Computing.

A few examples of popular grid computing projects are: Help Conquer Cancer, Discovering Dengue Drugs, FightAIDS@Home, and The Clean Energy Project.  Besides these non-profit projects, there are many commercial applications for grid computing such as pharmaceutical drug discovery, economic forecasting, and seismic analysis.

Now that you have an understanding of grid computing, let’s go over how this fits into Digsby.  We are testing a revenue model that conducts research similar to the projects mentioned above while your computer is idle.  Unlike the installer revenue model above, which is commonly seen in many products, this is much more unique so we’d like to clarify what it does and how it works.

[2 paragraphs removed]

The idea is to make this both a revenue model and a feature!  Some of the research Digsby conducts may be for non-profit projects like the ones mentioned above and some may be for paid projects, which will help us keep Digsby completely free.  So, using this module keeps Digsby free and contributes to research projects that will make the world a better place. [emphasis mine]

So, first they explain that they’re doing grid computing with their “research module”.  Then they give some examples of grid computing, all which sound great and which happen to be research.  “Research”, “research module” — the average person would read this and conclude that this thing is doing AIDS research in the background, and Digsby’s being paid for it.  Except, those projects don’t work that way.  They take unpaid volunteers who install those clients on computers, typically at universities.  They don’t pay people.

So who does pay people for computationally intensive work?  Though it could be relatively harmless things, I have no hope of knowing, because Digsby will not disclose who their customers (no, not you, the people actually paying for their users’ compute power) are nor what, specifically, their applications are.  Digsby has told you what some “examples” of research are that sound great, but they haven’t told you the ones that you probably wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about.  Those examples include data-mining/analysis or prime-number factorization for decryption.  Possible customers include telecommunications companies, the NSA, the CIA, or foreign governments.  Those are all customers that would pay.  A more harmless example of for-pay distributed computing would be a security firm such as RSA wanting to test a new algorithm against distributed attack, but again, the problem is we’ve no idea of knowing who it is.  And because many of these examples would be fairly secret, the Digsby developers themselves probably don’t know, which raises all sorts of concerns.

There are numerous research projects that require a massive amount of computing power to complete.  One option is to run these on a supercomputer but there are very few of these in the world and renting time on them is very expensive.  Another option is to break the problem up into many little pieces so each of the little pieces can run in parallel on thousands or even hundreds of thousands of regular computers.  This is called Grid Computing.

A few examples of popular grid computing projects are: Help Conquer Cancer, Discovering Dengue Drugs, FightAIDS@Home, and The Clean Energy Project.  Besides these non-profit projects, there are many commercial applications for grid computing such as pharmaceutical drug discovery, economic forecasting, and seismic analysis.

Now that you have an understanding of grid computing, let’s go over how this fits into Digsby.  We are testing a revenue model that conducts research similar to the projects mentioned above while your computer is idle.  Unlike the installer revenue model above, which is commonly seen in many products, this is much more unique so we’d like to clarify what it does and how it works.

What’s up with crazy old guys on the subway?

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

This post definitely undercuts my distinctly pro-rail post from yesterday, but I’ll go with it anyway:  what the hell is going on with crazy/creepy old guys on the subway?  (In this case, I’m referring to the “T” Red Line in Boston between South Station and Kendall, but I’ve experienced this in San Francisco as well).  I occasionally come across an unbalanced lady or younger person, but 9 times out of 10, it’s an old guy.

Today, it was a pushy dude who was exiting the Red Line at South Station just as I was entering.  The MBTA “turnstiles” are not really turnstiles — they’re half-duplex gates that allow either one person to enter (after inserting their fare ticket or activating their proximity card) or one person to exit (after activating a sensor).  Also, there’s a massive freaking row of them at larger stations — South Station definitely counts as one of those.  So, I put my card in right as this guy is heading toward the turnstile from the other side.  Card is in.  He walks up.  He seriously waves me aside, with the ol, “move aside”.  Now, I’m no expert, but I was there first (witness card already inserted), and there was an open exit RIGHT NEXT DOOR.  I told him I was there first – he just insists, no I wasn’t, and walks on through.  Whatever.  Point is:  crazy dudes apparently get their way.

A couple weeks ago, it was this older fellow who got on at Park Street as I was heading to South Station.  It was about 5:30.  The train was completely full of people.  I always stand, because I don’t like having to try to find a seat, I don’t like sitting in questionable cleanliness, and I don’t like the social awkwardness of continually wondering if I need to offer up my seat to someone who appears may need/want it.  The older guy gets on, and immediately starts rambling about how nobody will offer up their seat.  Keep in mind that if a person were to get up, there would be no place to actually stand — I was already completely squished next to someone as I stood.  So even if a person wanted to offer their seat, it wasn’t completely obvious as to how that was logistically possible.  Also, this guy wasn’t ancient.  At most, he’s in his late 60s.  Also, he seemed to be in good enough health to shove me aside as I was standing there (again, there was little room for him to maneuver, but somehow he found a way), as he sought out a seat.  As he muttered on and on about how there was a “thousand dollar fine” for not offering up your seat (not true — though there are reserved seats for seniors and disabled persons that may fit his description, those were already full with seniors and a couple pregnant ladies), his bitching finally guilt-tripped a lady into awkwardly giving up her seat for this guy.  Real classy, taking a seat away from a lady.  Now, I don’t know this guy’s medical condition, but he sure seemed fit enough to force his way through a crowded train.  Also, his would-be protocol that all the people on a full train should get up and offer their seats up for re-prioritization at every stop is completely inefficient.  The Red Line breaks down and stops enough without those kinds of problems.

Another example that stands out in my mind is this older guy who frequently gets on at Kendall and off at either Charles/MGH or Park Street.  I see him all the time.  He wears full-on ear-covering headphones, and he reeks of urine.  Granted, he most likely is homeless, but the crazy part is the talking-to-himself aspect.  I’ve been on the train w/ plenty of seemingly homeless people.  They might hit you up for money, but they don’t all just start having a conversation with themselves.  But again, if it’s a crazy person talking to themselves on the train, it’s likely an old dude.  He’s not the only one, by far — he’s just the one I see most regularly.

More in the “creepy”, but not annoying, category would be the mid-50s guy who got on at Park Street going to South Station 3 weeks ago or so.  Unlike the annoying/unhinged fellows who usually are rather unkempt, this guy was fairly well groomed.  Recent haircut, clean clothes, just another commuter on the T, right?  Wrong.  Dude has on an older, yet clean and free-of-holes, “Hanson” fan shirt.  (Not just the word “Hanson”, but one with the faces of the members of the band — not to be confused with the hockey-playing Hanson Brothers, who rule — shouldn’t they face off in celebrity deathmatch?)  I didn’t even know they made those shirts in adult sizes.  And this wasn’t some sort of modern-hipster-douchebag type ironic thing (“check out my Pabst shirt!  I’m so clever!”) — or if it was, nothing else about this serious, slightly-past-middle-aged guy gave that away.  This shirt didn’t look like something he bought recently, but had had for years & lovingly cared for.  All with the long-locked, slightly-female-looking mugs of the Hanson boy-band on the front of his shirt.  Utterly, utterly creepy.  And no, it’s not about it being guys — if he had a “Hannah Montana” shirt on, it would be equally creepy.  Who knows, maybe there’s a Hannah Montana shirt-guy on the Green Line.  What am I saying — of course there’s a Hannah Montana shirt-guy riding the Green Line.  He’s probably wearing it on the way to the concert, at the Garden.

Anyway, I love the public transit system here in Boston, and if I have to put up with the crazy-ass old guys, so be it.  But once in a while, I do wish they could tone down the crazy.

Earth to Texas Rail Opponents: NO transportation is free!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Having lived most of my life in Texas, I’m familiar with the bizarre anti-public-transportation movement there.  I understand that building rail is more expensive than building roads but that doesn’t figure in the cost of operating the cars on those roads.  It also doesn’t figure in the economic damage to commercial freight caused by traffic jams and accidents.  (The city of Houston estimated this in the millions of dollars when studying whether or not they needed a “mandatory towing” policy for broken-down cars that were causing traffic jams.  Unsurprisingly, yes, it’s necessary).  Anyway, these points seem lost on rail opponents in Houston and Austin.  I recently was listening to Jeff Ward’s podcast, and his complaint was that — horror of horrors! — the metro rail project there will subsidize rider fare.  I heard no such complaints about taxpayer funds subsidizing roads.  Jeff Ward frequently fancies himself some sort of economics expert.  He’s got some interesting things to say now & then, but let’s be real — he’s a former UT football kicker who entertains on the radio & guest lectures in advertising at UT (not economics).

His harping on the “taxpayer subsidies” of public transportation plays to the common attack on public transportation in Texas.  That is, people need to man up and buy a car, and stop mooching off the government.  That’s all well and good, except that it ignores the costs associated with the alternative (auto transportation).  Specifically, it:

  • Requires expensive taxpayer-subsidized roads that are already full of traffic in Houston and Austin, that have nowhere to expand, and thus are frequently impractical to even build
  • Contributes to urban sprawl, which is a taxation problem in Texas because a disproportionate amount of local government infrastructure is funded by local-city property taxes (income taxes are banned by the state constitution)
  • Completely ignores the per-person costs that people pay for maintaining a car (actual maintenance, but insurance as well)
  • Is bad for economic stability because it promotes inefficient consumption of fossil fuels, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Is arguably bad for the environment, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Completely doesn’t work for poor people who don’t own a car (check out craptastic bus coverage in Houston some time — people forced to commute by bus there frequently spend 3 HOURS going across town, one way).

In reality, I think this is far more basic for Texans than a (faulty) economic argument.  People there really do have a wild-west mentality.  It’s widespread.  The “castle doctrine” (which allows a homeowner/resident to kill someone who trespasses, if the homeowner/resident “believes” that they are in danger), the concealed-handgun proliferation there (I can’t tell you how many times someone told me that they make sure their wife or girlfriend carries a gun in their purse, frequently unlicensed), and the “get your own horse & make the trails wider!” mentality of the anti-rail folks pretty much all can be boiled down to the fact that Texans like to see themselves as folksy Cowboys.  I’m not saying this to denigrate Texans — I love Texas.  But, c’mon, y’all have to separate this mythology of how you’d like to see yourselves from what’s economically wise.

Texas is far more spread out than the Northeast and thus it’s not practical for rail (or even public transit with buses) to completely replace having a car.  However, park-and-ride solutions can actually work.  They have bus-based programs that work like this in Austin and Houston, but ridership is low — primarily because it’s a frustrating experience.  You get on the bus and then basically wait with everyone else on the crowded roads.  If you’ve got your own car already, there’s very little personal incentive to ride the bus.  There’s less stress and it does allow you to eliminate one car from a multi-car family, but you are giving up scheduling freedom with your day.  I don’t blame people for wanting to get a more clear advantage than that.  Hopefully the large-scale metro rail rollout in Austin will succeed, and when people see the convenience and economic advantage of it, they’ll set aside their myth-based biases about public transportation.

NASCAR Pocono race rained out

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The rainy summer struck again, this time down in Pennsylvania.  We’ve been getting an unreal amount of rain this summer in Boston, but basically the whole northeast has been hit.  This time it rained out the Pocono 500.  The race in New Hampshire a few weeks ago was also rain-shortened (Joey Lagano won as a result — good for him, but crappy for fans).  Way to kill my weekend, rain clouds!  Only 2 more weeks until the NFL preseason starts in full-swing…